When Terry Hassan spoke to a room of 11 older adults about the social services available to them in Chanhassen, she framed the idea as taking advantage of service they’d been paying for their whole lives and could now use.
“You all paid the taxes in when you were young and working, and now it’s time to take that credit,” said Hassan, the community outreach manager at the Community Action Partnership of Scott, Carver and Dakota Counties.
Hassan spoke alongside Jenny Buckland and Crystal Winston, of PROP Food Shelf in Eden Prairie, at an outreach meeting facilitated by Emilie Robinson, a housing specialist at the Carver County Community Development Agency, at Centennial Hills Senior Apartments in Chanhassen on Jan. 16.
The meeting aimed to connect adults over 65 with public assistance that many may not know they qualify for, or may resist accepting. While old age can bring a host of financial difficulties, from health and mobility challenges to loss of income when a spouse dies, many from the Silent Generation resist the notion of receiving help in the form of government aid or social programs, said Buckland, Winston and Robinson.
Lynnae Nikolai, 67, was one of the 11 people who attended the outreach meeting. She walked into the room with an edge over the others in terms of knowledge: Her career as an energy auditor at Community Action Partnership (CAP) and as a Section 8 inspector for the Human Resources Administration clued her into the programs she could access.
“I knew eventually I’d have to get that help for myself,” Nikolai explained.
She did eventually apply for housing assistance through Section 8, but it took nine years to fulfill her request for a one-bedroom apartment.
Nikolai has taken advantage of programs from PROP and CAP since retiring several years ago. Her car was stolen just 18 months after a PROP program helped her pay for repairs, which forced her into early retirement: She couldn’t afford to buy another car, and without it, she couldn’t get to work. But retiring before age 65 meant she couldn’t receive her full benefits through Social Security.
“That’s what put me into the position I was in,” Nikolai said.
She’s lived in Centennial Hills Senior Apartments for just over a year and uses the Metropolitan Council’s Metro Mobility and SouthWest Transit’s Prime services to get to and from classes at various senior and community centers. At the outreach meeting, Nikolai raised a hand during Hassan’s presentation to clue the attendees into an added benefit of using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): SouthWest Transit gives discounted rides to anyone who’s eligible for SNAP.
As she ran through the services available to the seniors, Hassan added asides to try and normalize accepting help from such programs. She bought her entire outfit — a neat black blazer and slacks — from thrift stores, Hassan said, and she described programs like SNAP as just another government amenity, like well-maintained roads.
“It’s a government program but so is Social Security, so is Medicare,” Hassan told the group. “Please don’t feel like you need to make excuses or feel bad if you need help with food.”
While PROP does senior presentations monthly, the outreach is newer to Robinson and the Carver County Community Development Agency. She started facilitating them last year in order to better understand the needs among the senior community, which have crystallized into a few main points: transit, food, and healthcare − specifically optical and dental care, which are frequently under-covered by insurance, Robinson said.
In response, Robinson has invited groups like SouthWest Transit, the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging, and Chaska food shelves to address those issues and present at outreach events. But getting seniors to accept the help available is a different challenge — many resist signing up for programs, saying that they’re not struggling enough to take the spot from someone else who may need it more, Robinson said, even when they’re undeniably struggling.
The pride and resistance to accepting help is a generational characteristic, said Winston, a case manager at PROP who specializes in helping seniors. Many grew up thinking they’d never need to accept “that kind” of help and don’t picture themselves as someone who would be eligible for SNAP. Patience and relationship building are key to building trust and learning about an individual’s needs, Winston said.
“You really need to allow them time,” she explained. “You can’t guess, you don’t know.”
Even when someone has accepted help or begun to apply for assistance, they’ll back out at the last moment or stop taking the assistance the moment they feel they’re able, said Robinson. Buckland noted that a trend among PROP’s senior clients is to enroll in a program just long enough to cross a threshold into financial stability and then leave, only returning when their finances are in dire straits again.
When an attendee paused the presentation to say the sheer number of programs was confusing, the presenters had a response ready.
“The best thing to do is call,” Winston said. “The most important thing to know is you don’t have to do this alone. There is someone who can walk with you.”